Leather jackets

From rogueish to refined, leather jackets have been an obsession of Nick Foulkes’ for 35 years. This season the temptation is greater than ever. Portrait by Richard Grassie

Nick Foulkes (right) in a Louis Vuitton leather and shearling aviator parka, £2,560, and his son in his grandfather’s flying jacket
Nick Foulkes (right) in a Louis Vuitton leather and shearling aviator parka, £2,560, and his son in his grandfather’s flying jacket | Image: Richard Grassie

To the heliophile that I am, the coming of autumn does not fill me with the same joy at fruitful abundance that moved John Keats to dash off his Ode to Autumn.

The shortening days, the unwelcome tang of chill in the evening, the polychromatic blazonry of russets, golds, umbers and browns that is the funeral garb of foliage… No, instead of the glorious, fecund consummation of summer, I see only the long haul of winter, the promise of months of mere existence with grey skies, limited daylight and whatever bad meteorological luck the roulette wheel of climate change serves up. This battery of environmental signals brings on the old Pavlovian surge of cortisol that comes with the fear of the impending Michaelmas term and the return to the rigours of boarding school.

 Berluti lambskin jacket, £5,100 
 Berluti lambskin jacket, £5,100 

So all in all you might think that with the switch from summer time I might as well just pull up the duvet, put out the light and go into hibernation for the next few months. But it is not a completely desolate stretch ahead; autumn is when I can wear my leather jackets.

Back in 2009, in these pages, I wrote about my mid-life connection with my inner denim-wearing self and how, rather like some unsuitable love affair rekindled on Friends Reunited, I had given myself over to an orgy of indigo workwear. Well, I am also slightly ashamed to admit that, as well as being a man of a certain age who wears jeans, I harbour a penchant for leather jackets. But I am not about to go the whole Peter Marino and start showing up around the West End looking like I am auditioning for a Village People tribute band.

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To be fair to myself, this is not something new, as I have never really gone off my leather jackets. In fact, they have been a part of my generally schizophrenic wardrobe for as long as I have been dressing myself. And over time I have picked up one or two. Submitting wearily to the infallible logic of the addictive personality, I have tended to reason that if one of something is good, then two must be at least twice as good and three must be even better.

Besides, no three, or even two, leather jackets are quite alike and, as a lifelong user of them, I find I can compose a sort of autobiography in horsehide, calfskin, shearling, deerskin and so forth. But it is also fascinating how tastes that I formed almost 40 years ago are still with me in some way or another, even if I am now too old to carry them off with any authenticity, let alone dignity.

Richard James leather biker jacket, £1,595
Richard James leather biker jacket, £1,595

The first leather jacket I remember with any real clarity was a 1950s sheepskin flying jacket with an interior that had stained the colour of rust and a massive tear about the size of a paperback book (or iPad Mini if you are under 30) in one of the sleeves. That was in 1979 and I was 14, and although I can sympathise with my father for having got rid of it upon my return home from school, I still rather wish he hadn’t.

Next there was a black leather sleeveless jerkin that I covered with metal studs and lengths of chain and used to wear over the top of a fringed Lewis Leathers double-breasted biker jacket. This attempt at being a Hells Angel in a Home Counties boarding school co-existed perfectly happily with a fringed ginger buckskin shirt, which I thought imparted that missing touch of Roger Daltrey at Woodstock that my already eclectic wardrobe required. And by the early 1980s I had acquired a two-piece flying suit in grey leather and a belted black horsehide greatcoat.

Purdey sheepskin body warmer with cashmere sleeves, £1,095
Purdey sheepskin body warmer with cashmere sleeves, £1,095

Apparently, some of these items still exist in that mysterious purgatory that my wife calls “storage” and which my younger son sometimes plunders for his wardrobe. I think the only reason the leather jackets have remained there is because, on occasion, I have been known to reappropriate items of clothing from him.

Indeed, when it comes to vintage leather, I still find it hard to resist the siren song of, say, a three-quarter-length, zip-fronted, wool-lined leather jacket of the sort I might have worn while competing in the Isle of Man TT c1920 (with the requisite pipe and goggles). Belstaff’s belted jacket (£1,725) with a shearling collar is a contemporary alternative and epitomises biker bravado – with or without the goggles.

Belstaff heritage-leather Falmouth jacket, £1,725
Belstaff heritage-leather Falmouth jacket, £1,725

And I suppose it is this powerful element of make believe that draws me, moth-like, to the flame of the next leather jacket. Back in the mid-1990s I spent a lot of time and a fair bit of money in the mews behind the Lanesborough Hotel, where Connolly was located. The shop was the work of Joseph and Issy Ettedgui. Joseph was one of the great retailers of late-20th-century London who did much to influence the way we shop today. He also shaped my taste for leather jackets – I still have the Mille Miglia motoring blouson I bought back then. I purchased it under the misapprehension that it would transform me into someone out of Edward Quinn’s photographs of the south of France in the 1950s. At that time I was wearing yellow V-necks and knitted waistcoats under my leather, unsure whether I was some 1950s playboy driving my convertible 375 MM Ferrari in St Tropez or Rupert Everett in Dance with a Stranger.

When I was writing a book about the history of Dunhill some years ago, I surrendered myself to the British marque’s vision of leather jackets – all in the name of research, you understand – and the great thing is that the jackets I have from that period (which span the gamut from Edwardian automobilist, through café racer, to whatever occupation it is that requires a butter-soft, mottled-claret, zip-up shearling blouson) are like treasured friends from the past.

Ermenegildo Zegna deerskin bomber, £5,180
Ermenegildo Zegna deerskin bomber, £5,180 | Image: George Ong

I suppose you know your addiction is getting the better of you when you want to go straight to the source and that moment came when I heard about the workshops of Henri Zaks at Séraphin.

Zaks is a genius, an artist in leather. Had he been around in the 19th century, I feel sure that he would have figured in one of Balzac’s novels, but speaking for myself, I cannot tell you how glad I am that he is active in the 21st century. Balzac’s loss is very much my gain and his ateliers along the Quai de Valmy are among my very favourite places in Paris.

Dolce & Gabbana leather bomber jacket, about €3,400
Dolce & Gabbana leather bomber jacket, about €3,400

Zaks has that gift for creating stuff that you never knew you wanted until you see it, after which you cannot dislodge it from your mind. In fact, not only does it stay stubbornly in one’s thoughts, it pushes out one’s recollection of what else one has in the wardrobe that might be classed as similar. Not that I had anything remotely similar to the musquash-lined Afghan-goatskin parka he made me – I am not kidding when I say that the chief reason I started accompanying my family on skiing trips (where I do not ski) was so that I could have a pretext for wearing this garment – checking the weather forecast was one of the things that got me out of bed in the depths of winter, to see if it would be cold enough to justify putting it on. But the great thing is that, even if it is not cold enough, I have a couple of other Séraphin jackets to suit a range of temperatures; there is the baroudeur, a sort of black leather take on a Barbour, and a blue leather bomber jacket with a shaved-shearling lining that is somehow as soft as mink.

I really cannot help myself: no matter how many leather jackets I have, there will always be room for another – a blouson-shaped void in my life crying out to be filled. And as every collector of anything from milk‑bottle tops to modern art knows, a collection is never ever complete.

Kent and Curwen leather jacket, £2,175
Kent and Curwen leather jacket, £2,175

Look hard enough and one always finds that there is some aspect of life that requires a new leather jacket. For instance, the past half-dozen years have seen me get into shooting a bit more seriously and, while my eyesight will never permit me to become a good shot, the sport has opened up new sartorial vistas, among them opportunities for the acquisition of more leather coats. My standard shooting coat is a heavy leather affair with throat straps, gathered interior cuffs of cashmere and huge bellows pockets by Purdey – it is warm and weatherproof but heavy and a trifle tiring to wear. So for days that are not quite so mordantly cold, I have a lighter-weight Beretta shearling that is smart enough to wear in town, and with the shooting season already upon us, I am eyeing up Purdey’s sporty sheepskin body warmer (£1,095) with cashmere sleeves. And just in case global warming does what it says on the tin, I am trying to persuade Niels van Rooyen, creative director of Holland & Holland, to make a men’s shearling shooting gilet – as he has already done for women.

However, if there is a chasm in my wardrobe it is because I have yet to summon up the courage to invest in one of Zilli’s peccary-skin jackets (from ¤15,000). If you are at all serious about leather jackets, you have to own something in this American pigskin by the iconic Lyons-based maker. John Lennon used to favour a mink-lined peccary jacket from Zilli to keep out the chill of New York winters. Francis Bacon was also a Zilli man, regularly ordering new lambskin jackets (from ¤7,000) in burgundy.

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But the thing also that impressed me most when I visited Lyons was the fact that Zilli could create a summer leather jacket in kangaroo skin just 0.2mm thick. Did I mention that recent years have seen me assemble a fair few summer leathers as well? Not long ago I was seized by the urge to buy a pale-pink suede blazer during an attack of aestival optimism. And a couple of seasons back I found myself in the Hermès store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, contemplating an apple‑green, parchment-thin-suede safari jacket for around ¤8,000. In this instance, sanity – or rather credit‑card limits – prevailed.

Some of the designers of this season’s most covetable leather clearly feel a nostalgia for the bright colours of summer. Take Richard James’s cobalt-blue biker jacket (£1,595) or Kent and Curwen’s similarly hued belted leather one (£2,175). They make winter seem a tad less grey.

In the course of my research into this season’s leather jackets, my eye was also caught by a python-skin bomber (price on request) at Louis Vuitton. In the past few years the malletier de luxe has done outstanding work furthering mankind’s research into the sheepskin duffel (from £3,900) and I am modelling the brand’s rather splendid aviator parka with a shearling collar (£2,560), which struck me as a grande-luxe take on the canadiennes favoured by Jean-Paul Sartre and Bernard Buffet. Meanwhile, I only had to hear Gildo Zegna utter the words “deerskin luxury bomber” (£5,180) to know that I wanted one. Seeing a picture only confirmed this.

And I am hoping that Berluti’s artistic director Alessandro Sartori will have kept a quite miraculous shearling in his winter collection – I like it because it appeals to my very earliest tastes in leather jackets in that it combines aspects of both the flying and motorcycle jacket. But, if it does not appear in the line-up, I can console myself with the brand’s dapper lambskin bomber (£5,100) with a shearling collar.

Slightly more purposeful-looking is Dolce & Gabbana’s bomber jacket (about €3,400). However, when it comes to seriousness of intent, little can top the fantastic flying jackets that my children have just inherited from their maternal grandfather, who was a “strike” pilot flying Buccaneers. He still flies his biplane but he clearly has no need for these battered sheepskin relics from the 1940s and 1950s, so he gave them to his grandsons (rather than his son-in-law). I thought they looked oddly familiar and then realised that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the flying jacket I fell in love with aged 14.

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